Plagiarism And The Ugly Truth About Education

The definition of plagiarism is well established, but for the sake of completeness, the Oxford English Dictionary says, “The action or practice of taking someone else’s work, idea, etc., and passing it off as one’s own; literary theft.”1 It has been used this way, in English, since at least 1621. It is derived from the Latin noun, plagiarius, one sense of which is “plunderer.” This would be an apt definition of plagiarism: plundering the work of another and presenting it as one’s own. In essence it is theft, a violation of the eighth commandment, “You shall not steal” (Ex 20:15; Deut 5:19; Lev 19:11; Matt 19:18; Rom 13:9). We do not even need special revelation to teach us that theft is wrong. The moral law is inscribed on the conscience of every human being. Any child knows what theft is. Put two children in a room with toys, and before long one is likely to emerge and complain, “Mom, she took my toy!” No one had to teach that child that theft is wrong. He knew intuitively the difference between mine and yours. The toy was his and she wanted it. She took what did not belong to her.

Though scholars might wish to deconstruct theft, as Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) attempted to do, “mine” and “yours” are so basic they cannot be deconstructed. They are not a social construct. Rousseau himself was a sexual profligate who burdened the citizens of Geneva with the care of his several children, thus stealing from the citizens of Geneva.2 He only sought to deconstruct theft in order to justify his own sins, just as Michel Foucault (1926–1984) sought to deconstruct sex in order to justify his homosexual pederasty.3

Until the very recent postmodern insanity that has beset the West, there was no debate about whether plagiarism was acceptable. My own school has a detailed policy, quoting Westminster Larger Catechism 99, explaining what plagiarism is, why it is wrong, and why it will not be tolerated.

This issue is before us again, not because our sitting president is a serial plagiarist, who was forced to withdraw from an earlier presidential campaign because—I know it seems incredible—he plagiarized the biography of UK Labor politician Neil Kinnock.4 He told Kinnock’s life story at though it was his own. It is not because a prominent Reconstructionist/Christian Nationalist/Federal Visionist has published not one, not two, but three plagiarized books.5 Remarkably, this person leads a classical Christian school movement, an undergraduate college, and a ministerial preparatory school.

Plagiarism is before us because the president of Harvard University has been found to have plagiarized not only one section of her PhD dissertation, for which sin her degree might well be invalidated were shame still a thing, but also refereed journal articles.6 Among those from whom she stole work and presented it as her own was one of her PhD advisors.7 Another uncredited source is Carol Swain.8 It boggles the mind.

At the writing of this essay, Claudine Gay, PhD is still president of Harvard. That says something about the state of education in the USA, about Gay, and about the Harvard Corporation, the equivalent of the Board of Regents in most universities. Her behavior violates Harvard’s own policy on plagiarism:

It is expected that all homework assignments, projects, lab reports, papers, theses, and examinations and any other work submitted for academic credit will be the student’s own. Students should always take great care to distinguish their own ideas and knowledge from information derived from sources. The term “sources” includes not only primary and secondary material published in print or online, but also information and opinions gained directly from other people. Quotations must be placed properly within quotation marks and must be cited fully. In addition, all paraphrased material must be acknowledged completely. Whenever ideas or facts are derived from a student’s reading and research or from a student’s own writings, the sources must be indicated (see also “Submission of the Same Work to More Than One Course” below).9

My interest here is less in the question of plagiarism per se and more in what the current controversy says about the state of the academy. It is decrepit. I write as a mediocre high school graduate (250th of 500). I spoke at my high school graduation not on merit but because I had the chutzpah to volunteer to fill an empty slot. I was an academic slacker more interested in girls, radio, and Bible studies than geometry (which I barely passed). Nevertheless, my mediocre ACT scores earned me a place in my state university where I attended part-time for two years while I tried to start a full-time radio career. Then, in my third year of college, after I met the future Heidelfrau, who was a star pupil, I began to learn to study. My logic professor explained that if we spent ten hours memorizing formulae for the exam we could earn an A. He explained how to memorize. It was the first time anyone had ever reduced exam preparation to a finite task. I earned an A- and, had I studied another thirty minutes, I probably could have aced the exam. I was twenty when I became an actual student and not a mediocre slacker. I made the Dean’s List and finished my senior year (forty credits!) as a straight-A student taking Greek, Latin, and English courses. What is the point? I was a mediocre student for most of my career because, for all the many failings of public education after World War II, there were still some standards. Not everyone was an A student. I had to become an A student. Since then, however, things have changed rather dramatically.

The problem of grade inflation is well known. Recently, a report detailed that nearly 80% of all grades given to Yale undergraduates were an A.10 Since the establishment of the Department of Education (a development much to be regretted), educational bureaucracies have burgeoned.11 In some places there are almost as many bureaucrats as students. Still, academic standards and performance continues to decline year after year.

That the plagiarizing President Gay is still president of one of the most prestigious universities in the world reveals something else: the death of truth in the university. The old plagiarism rules were formed when schools still believed in objective reality. The powers that be at Harvard no longer believe in quaint ideas such as objective truth. This is not my hyperactive imagination at work. Seven hundred Harvard faculty members signed a letter urging that President Gay be retained.12 She was one of the university presidents who, in their testimony before congress, refused to denounce antisemitism or to agree that threats against Jewish students and calls for the extermination of Jews were beyond the pale of free speech. Later, after a firestorm of criticism, Gay defended herself by saying, “I failed to convey what is my truth.”13 That expression, “my truth,” is a tell-tale mark of radical subjectivism. It is not that Gay and the others revealed an extraordinary degree of muddleheadedness but that she failed to articulate her subjective experience.

People who do not believe in objective truth are no longer fit to educate young people. When I was in university, we sometimes had robust, spontaneous debates in class about big ideas. Professor Phil Dyer was wrong about some important things, but he was right about and presented us with important ideas with which he expected us to wrestle. We were expected to be able to hear things with which we disagreed and to respond to them rationally. Now, that approach, which has been observed in academies across the globe since the Greek and Roman empires, is smeared with the epithet “whiteness.”

It is utter folly, but tragically, more than a few students who have been through university in the last decade or more have no idea what a real liberal arts education really looks like. They have never been made to defend a point of view with reasoned arguments and appropriate evidence. We learned to do that in Junior High (i.e., Middle School). The very idea of disagreement is shattering. They have been indoctrinated in critical theory but they have never been taught critical thinking.

It is incumbent on those who still believe in true education and liberal arts to hold the line.14 Christian colleges and universities especially should not give in to declining standards or to the radical subjectivism of the age.15 More than that, however, the whole model needs to change. Because of the influence of the Department of Education, because of the way education is financed and the degree to which schools have become dependent upon tuition income, students have become clients and schools have become service providers. We issue student evaluations the same way Uber sends customer satisfaction surveys.

The truth is that the only student evaluation that really matters is whether the student has learned something, and that is what term papers, exams, theses, and dissertations are supposed to measure. Has the student learned to think more clearly? Has the student mastered (memorized, analyzed, and repeated) the necessary material and skills? One of my professors once said something to the effect that a student has earned an A in his course if, after completing the course, he could teach it (yes, I earned an A in that course). This is not an outrageous standard. This is how education used to work. C. S. Lewis did not earn a PhD. He earned a “first” at Oxford as an undergraduate. That is the rough equivalent of graduating summa cum laude (with highest praise or merit). After a few years, his BA matured, in the custom of the university, to an MA. He was indeed ready to begin tutoring other students. His degree meant something because there was the very real possibility of failure. Until we return the possibility of failure and insist on objective truth and objective standards, education will continue to spiral into a morass of subjectivisms and “educational experiences.”

Claudine Gay’s plagiarism is a genuine problem but it is also a symptom of a much bigger and deeper problem in American education.

Notes

  1. The Oxford English Dictionary Online, s.v., “plagiarism.”
  2. Christopher Bertram, “Jean Jacques Rousseau,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed  Edward N. Zalta and Uri Nodelman, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rousseau/#Life.
  3. Daniel Johnson “Michel Foucault: The Prophet of Pederasty,” The Critic, April, 2021, https://thecritic.co.uk/issues/april-2021/michel-foucault-the-prophet-of-pederasty/.
  4. Neena Satija, “Echoes of Biden’s 1987 Plagiarism Scandal Continue to Reverberate,” The Washington Post, June 5, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/echoes-of-bidens-1987-plagiarism-scandal-continue-to-reverberate/2019/06/05/dbaf3716-7292-11e9-9eb4-0828f5389013_story.html..
  5. See Rachel Green Miller, “A Question for Wilson Fans,” A Daughter of the Reformation (blog), September 30, 2015, https://rachelgreenmiller.com/2015/09/30/a-question-for-wilson-fans/; “Plagiarism As It Is,” Tom and Rodna Hansen, http://www.tomandrodna.com/notonthepalouse/Plagiarism.htm; Rachel Green Miller, “Justice, Character, and Plagiarism,” A Daughter of the Reformation (blog), December 10, 2015, https://rachelgreenmiller.com/2015/12/10/justice-character-and-plagiarism/; Rachel Green Miller, “Plagiarism, Wilson, and the Omnibus,” A Daughter of the Reformation (blog), May 5, 2016, https://rachelgreenmiller.com/2016/05/05/plagiarism-wilson-and-the-omnibus/; For more on plagiarism in Moscow, ID, see “Plagiarism,” The Truth About Moscow, moscowid.net/category/plagiarism/.
  6. Anemona Hartocollis and Sheelagh McNeill, “Excerpts From Dr. Claudine Gay’s Work,” The New York Times, December 21, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/12/21/us/claudine-gay-harvard-president-excerpts.html.
  7. Christopher F. Rufo and Christopher Brunet, “Is Claudine Gay a Plagiarist?,” Christopher F. Rufo (blog), December 10, 2023, https://christopherrufo.com/p/is-claudine-gay-a-plagiarist.
  8. GistFest, “Carol Swain Accuses Harvard Of ‘Redefining’ Plagiarism to Protect President Claudine Gay,” MSN, December 20, 2023, https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/politics/carol-swain-accuses-harvard-of-redefining-plagiarism-to-protect-president-claudine-gay/ar-AA1lNSQk.
  9. “Harvard University Plagiarism Policy,” Harvard Guide to Using Sources, Harvard University, https://usingsources.fas.harvard.edu/harvard-plagiarism-policy.
  10. Amelia Nierenberg, “Nearly Everyone Gets A’s at Yale. Does That Cheapen the Grade?,” New York Times, December 6, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/12/05/nyregion/yale-grade-inflation.html.
  11. “The Growth of Bureaucracy in Education,” Duck Duck Go, https://duckduckgo.com/?q=the+growth+of+bureaucracy+in+education&t=osx&ia=web.
  12. Daniel Arkin, “Hundreds of Harvard faculty members urge university not to oust embattled president,” NBC News, December 11, 2023, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/education/hundreds-harvard-faculty-members-urge-university-not-oust-embattled-pr-rcna129027.
  13. Nikolas Lanum, “Harvard president apologizes, says she feels ‘regret’ following antisemitism testimony before Congress,” New York Post, December 8, 2023, https://nypost.com/2023/12/08/news/harvard-president-apologizes-says-she-feels-regret-following-testimony-before-congress/.
  14. See R. Scott Clark, “Education True and False.”
  15. See R. Scott Clark, “Clear Evidence Of Declining Academic Standards.”

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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10 comments

  1. As I said in my libellous song about Nikolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky, make sure you call it research (I wouldn’t DREAM of acknowledging Mr Tom Lehrer as the author of anything I plagiarize).

  2. Thank you so much for this article Dr. Clark. I have shared this article with my daughter who is a criminal justice professor at a university here in Pennsylvania where I live. We just had a converstaion about this very matter concerning a student who has plagerized the notes of her professor in her writing at the masters level. My daughter is the coordinator of this masters program, but it involved another professor in her department. Unfortunately, my daughter took the viral of this student on a phone call. I think your thoughts will help her in thinking through this issue. My daughter did her doctorate work at Arizona State and lived there with her husband for five years. I am a retired special education teacher who also taught in a Christian school after I retired so I am very interested in matters concerning education. One of the most helpful books I read on education was J. Gresham Machen’s little known book, Education, Christianity, and the State which I highly recommend. Thank you again for posting these thoughtful articles.

  3. The increasing trend of overlooking plagiarism is just another move in the direction of “the end justifying the means ” (Machiavelli, I believe) being applied by critical theorists, woke-ness, anarchists, and most unfortunately, CN types.

  4. Plagiarism is the natural sibling of credential exaggeration, and a not distant cousin to other violations of the moral law. Whenever we find a public figure exaggerating his credentials (a la R. Zacharias) or plagiarizing his graduate work (like so many, including Dr. MLK, Jr.), we should expect to find even more heinous things as the rocks continue to be flipped over.

  5. I am a Harvard Business School graduate, and I’m appalled at what the University has become. It is fair to say that the Board of Overseers picked her for two reasons: skin color and chromosomes. She is also apparently quite good at faculty politics from what I’ve been reading in Harvard magazine. I think she has just floated along on the sea of relativism for so long that neither she nor Harvard has any idea what truth and righteousness really are any more.

    As part of the Harvard alma mater cautions, “Let not moss-covered error moor thee by it side/ While the world on truth’s current glides by.” Words that the Board of Overseers would do well to heed.

  6. As David alluded to above, don’t forget about MLK Jr., though this is a minor sin comparatively for him, was a serial plagiarizer as well. He plagiarized the I Have a Dream Speech.

  7. The fact that Gay has not been fired tells you what kind of institution Harvard is, and what their leaders understand is the role of the president.

    If a celebrity pastor confesses to an affair and stealing money, and then is placed on “sabbatical” for three months, before being fully reinstated by the board of that church, then outside observers would rightly conclude that the role of “pastor” as defined in that church is not as spiritual leader and undershepherd of Christ’s flock, but as the celebrity CEO who keeps the money and attention flowing to/through an organization. Through the exercise of discipline, we learn what the role is and is not.

    Even before we learned about the plagiarism, a glance at Gay’s academic record (11 articles in a field of dubious academic validity, no books published) shows us that the reason for her hire are 1) her race and gender, and 2) her adherence to the ideology/religion of academia, which might be dubbed “progressivism” or “identity politics.” She is not qualified to be CEO of the foremost teaching and research institution in the country, but she is highly qualified to be an eminent priestess in the religion of academia.

    The plagiarism revelations do not damage her qualifications as a high priestess in this religion. They do not make her less able to do perform her fundamental duties.

    However, Harvard’s success depends in part upon maintaining the appearance of an institution tasked with research and teaching. Since Gay is not irreplaceable, she will eventually be fired if the cost of keeping up appearances while maintaining her in office is greater than the cost of throwing her under the bus and finding someone else.

    But if she ultimately gets fired, this doesn’t mean that anything will fundamentally at Harvard. The leadership has already told us the nature and purpose of that institution, by their choice of her in the first place.

  8. Count me among those who had no idea what a real liberal arts education should look like until after my first stint as an undergraduate student (1997-2002 studying biochemistry at a private school in Massachusetts). I never encountered that kind of writing until I started reading theological works around the time that ended, and I never wrote anything like that until my second year of graduate school (my paper on Polycarp).

    All of my writing before that (high school and undergraduate) was of three kinds: 1) a report on something, “this is what the book or chapter says,” 2) an opinion essay, “this is what I think about that,” or 3) a lab report, “this is the experiment I conducted and these are my results. I wouldn’t be surprised if at this point most educated people don’t have experience with reasoned arguments and appropriate evidence.

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